Leonard Leo turns focus from judiciary to advocacy to counter woke culture

He helped reshape the Supreme Court. Now Leonard Leo, a driving force behind President Donald Trump’s judicial selections, is taking aim at broader culture-war battles over “woke” politics.

And he’s sitting on a pile of cash to get it done.

Mr. Leo’s Marble Freedom Trust received what is believed to be the largest gift in political history, a $1.6 billion donation from Barre Seid, a Chicago businessman. The money, first reported by The New York Times this summer, has sent shockwaves through liberal activists, while conservatives rush to work up proposals to try to get in on Mr. Leo’s action.

Mr. Leo says he’s eager to see what he can do beyond the courtroom.

“The conservative legal movement has had significant impact on our legal culture, resulting in a much greater level of adherence to the Constitution and traditional legal principles,” Mr. Leo told The Washington Times in a statement. “I am hopeful that the infrastructure and talent networks we are building now will have similar impact in other areas of American life, well beyond just the law.”

Mr. Leo spent nearly three decades helming the Federalist Society, a right-of-center legal group that bills itself as a forum for debating the big legal questions of the day, but which critics say is at the heart of a rightward drift in the federal courts.

He took a leave of absence to work with the Bush administration to win confirmation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., and then worked first with candidate Donald Trump and later President Trump to shape his judicial picks.

He helped Mr. Trump craft the list of potential judicial nominees that the campaign released in 2016, solidifying pro-life and conservative supporters and helping propel the political newcomer to an improbable White House victory.

Mr. Leo then assisted as Mr. Trump installed three picks to the high court and filled out the lower courts with dozens of conservatives — many of them Federalist Society members.

That record of success has far-left activists worried about what Mr. Leo might do with more than a billion dollars at his disposal.

Elliot Mincberg, a senior fellow with People for the American Way, disagrees with Mr. Leo on policy, but said he’s been an “incredibly influential political figure.”

“Well recognized, but quiet power — and I think that’s what he’s been able to achieve,” Mr. Mincberg said. “It’s an enormous accomplishment for Leo, I have to acknowledge that.”

Meanwhile, a conservative operative said Mr. Leo has been besieged with requests from right-of-center groups eager to tap into Marble Freedom Trust’s new deep pockets.

Conservative activists are excited for an influx of cash to help them counter billionaire liberal funders such as George Soros, who has been able to influence political discourse in the U.S. by funding progressive organizations with millions of dollars to support liberal Democrats. 

But not all are praising Mr. Leo — one said he “monopolizes” money and is making the conservative movement stagnant.

Few public details are available about Marble Freedom Trust, thanks in part to its organization as a trust rather than a corporation.

Ilya Shapiro, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said Mr. Leo likes to work behind the scenes so as not to be “the story.”

“He operates not to get himself personal recognition or attention, but to have impact,” Mr. Shapiro said. “He’s friendly, he’s smart, he’s effective.”

It’s that combination of low profile and exceptional success that has liberal activists worried.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has long dogged the Federalist Society and Mr. Leo with accusations of impropriety over so-called dark money — funds that make their way into political activism and advocacy without going through the full disclosure strictures that apply to campaign money.

After news of the Marble Freedom Trust’s cash windfall broke, the Rhode Island Democrat expressed fear at Mr. Leo’s new reach.

“Leo’s dark-money web funds voter suppression and disinformation, bogus arguments about ‘critical race theory,’ and attacks on President Biden’s nominees. Expect to see a whole lot more of that now,” Mr. Whitehouse said on Twitter.

Accountable.US, which bills itself as a nonpartisan watchdog group, also has a pointed focus on Mr. Leo’s finances.

It issued a report this month showing a dozen groups that have benefited from Mr. Leo’s deep pockets. The group said its report is part of a new project to monitor influence and “to uncover the relationships between powerful right-wing organizations and the influential mega-donors who fund them.” 

“As the country braces for the start of yet another perilously uncertain Supreme Court term, Leonard Leo and his ultra-wealthy funders who’ve invested billions into his network of right-wing fringe groups eagerly await the return on their investments – high court decisions that erode our democracy and favor the privileged few over everyday Americans,” said Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US. “We cannot allow Leo’s groups to dictate public policy from the shadows.”

The complaints are nothing new for Mr. Leo, who according to The New York Times has had a hand in more than half a billion dollars in politically charged activities between 2015 and 2021.

The Honest Elections Project, for example, is part of Mr. Leo’s advocacy grapevine and is involved in the high court’s upcoming case Moore v. Harper, which is set to be heard in December. 

The case involves an election challenge in North Carolina, where a state court struck down the congressional map that lawmakers drew. The Republican-controlled legislature says state courts should butt out. They point to a clause in the Constitution that says the “times, places and manner” of electing members of Congress “shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.”

The Honest Elections Project filed a brief with the Supreme Court, supporting the North Carolina GOP lawmakers’ arguments. 

Other groups within Mr. Leo’s network include the Judicial Crisis Network and The 85 Fund, CRC Advisors and the BH group, conservative public relations and consulting organizations. 

The Consumers’ Research, which has helped lead efforts against “environmental, social, governance” initiatives aimed at green corporate policies, is also part of Mr. Leo’s affiliation.

Marble Freedom Trust is expected to support outfits battling against critical race theory and the spread of “woke” culture in business and politics. Groups that get cash are likely to span a range of activism, from hosting events to running ads to battling in the media.

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